Friday, 30 January 2009

The Anglo-Zulu Wars

130 years ago last week, over 24,000 Zulu warriors attacked a British Invasion Force as it encamped on the slopes of Isandlwana, Zululand. Both sides fought with amazing bravery, both sides suffered severe loss.

It was a terrible defeat for the British Army. Of the 1300 plus troops only a handful survived but over 3000 Zulus also died. On the same day the British troops at Rorke’s Drift, a few miles away, were also attacked but after many hours of fierce and furious battle the British troops repulsed the Zulu warriors.

Rob Gerrard (the resident historian at the stunning Isandlwana Lodge overlooking the site) guides tourists through every angle and nuance of the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift. He brings the events to life – so to speak – in the most vivid detail. The experience is guaranteed to move even the most unemotional of men.

What is less than impressive is the arrogance and ineptitude that was shown by commander of the British forces, Major General Lord Chelmsford. Men such as he rose to positions of power, due less to ability and more to connections, and their lack of professionalism had disastrous results. What is even more shocking is that many a similar thing continued to happen, later, in the First World War.

As in any war, it is not just the lives of soldiers that are lost, it is the lives of their families that are blighted. Every man who died on the 22nd January 1879 was a son; many a father, some a brother. Most would have been a breadwinner, others a potential one. British and Zulu families would feel the consequences for generations to come.

If I were to consider the Anglo-Zulu Wars on a totally uninvolved level, I should find the amount of interest that they exert for military historians - amateur and professional alike - surprising. The wars were condensed into a very short period, over a very small area. Could it be the complexity of them, the tactics, the reasons for them or the results of them that are so gripping? Or perhaps it’s the astounding bravery that was displayed: five VC’s were awarded at Rorke’s Drift alone.

But, in actual fact, I’m involved on a very personal level: my great-grandfather died at the Battle of Isandlwana. His name, Charles White, is on the memorial at Isandlwana. Somewhere, under one of the cairns – a pile of white stones – or scattered on the battlefield lie his remains. He left behind a family and dependents in Natal: seven children and a pregnant wife. Mr Kipling was wrong; there is very little glory in war.


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